In his short, dynamic life, Andy Kaufman became the master of the anti-joke and the art of deceptive introspection. In his stage act, and on film and TV, he curated the persona of a deviant but merry prankster, a cad who reveled in people not getting the joke. His impeccable timing and fearless technique made people question his sanity and his intentions. But who was the man behind the mask of comedy? Was he the demiurge of the modern stand-up comic, or was his artistic ambition nothing more than the primal response of laughter? Or, was there an element deep inside that could never be satiated, even with the admiration of the public?
The enigmas behind Kaufman’s public facade are explored, but never answered, in Box Brown’s graphic novel Is This Guy For Real?: The Unbelievable Life of Andy Kaufman. With a stark, two-tone, minimalist aesthetic that juxtaposes Kaufman’s colorful career, Brown presents a pseudo-biography of the comedy legend that never delves into hagiography, stylishly presenting Kaufman’s kinks and showbiz dreams. Especially intriguing is Brown’s focus on Kaufman’s obsession with wrestling, and how it influenced his comedy.
While Kaufman may have played a simple-minded character on stage, he thoughtfully crafted his comic persona. Even more than comedy, the ostentation of wrestling — which Kaufman imbibed throughout his lifetime — helped him expand the ridiculousness of his stage act, and develop his professional reputation.
Brown’s artwork, which has almost a manga-ish feel, is striking in its minimalism and boldness. The thick lines and cartoonish look of the characters fittingly offer the book a childlike sense of wonder. Everything that happens in Kaufman’s life seems to be the result of a juvenile fantasy come true: from obsessing about wrestling to becoming involved in a (staged) imbroglio with a wrestling legend, from using accents to make family laugh to making the nation laugh.
Kaufman’s tragic demise only plays a minor role in the narrative; his surprising rise to prominence and legend is the real focus here. And while this is far from a glitzy Hollywood story, Kaufman’s presence shines bright enough throughout that readers won’t have to look far for the “man on the moon” to beam down from these pages.